Food safety: stringent testing welcomed

Source of Article:  http://business.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/RTGAM.20090413.r-mccain14/BNStory/Business/home?cid=al_gam_mostemail

The Globe and Mail

Michael McCain emerged, reputation intact, from a harrowing food safety crisis which linked his company, Maple Leaf Foods Inc., [MFI-T] to the deaths of 21 people last summer. But the ordeal has just begun for the chief executive officer of Canada's largest meat processor.

Eight months after the first indication that Maple Leaf's luncheon meat was killing people, Mr. McCain will be on the hot seat on Monday as he faces parliamentary hearings on the future of Canada's food safety system.

The next 60 to 90 days will be critical in shaping a system that is capable of reducing – but not entirely eliminating – the risk of repeating last summer's crisis, he told The Globe and Mail's editorial board yesterday.

Mr. McCain became a household name, and face, last summer when listeria contamination in a Maple Leaf plant in Toronto was identified as the source of a widespread outbreak of illness and death.

In the face of a potential public relations disaster, Mr. McCain won praise for his quick public apology in ads on television and on YouTube, his willingness to shoulder blame, and rapid action to pull the offending meat off the shelves.

The hallmark of the Maple Leaf strategy became clear then: Accept responsibility, exceed expectations, and keep ahead of public opinion on regulatory action. That approach was evident again yesterday in what appeared to be a dress rehearsal for the hearings that begin next week.

“We are going to be advocating more regulation, not less. More-stringent protocols, not less-stringent protocols,” Mr. McCain said. “We're going to be advocating more transparency and a stronger role for government, not a reduced role.”

He was accompanied by the company's new chief food safety officer, Randy Huffman, whose appointment and position are being touted as evidence of Maple Leaf's responsiveness to the crisis.

Mr. McCain said he would welcome higher levels of monitoring and testing for food safety, even with the higher costs Maple Leaf would likely incur, as long as there is a level playing field.

For example, he expects the same standards to apply equally across the country, extending to processors regulated by often less-rigorous provincial rules. In addition, he would expect the same rules to be enforced at the borders in relation to meat imports.

Mr. McCain acknowledged that Maple Leaf could never shake the stigma that its meat was the source of the listeria deaths. “We're going to be attached to the listeria tag forever,” he said. “We are the listeria people in this country and we recognize that. That's our penance, if you will, for what happened last year.

“We believe the way to bring meaning to the lives lost is to go beyond education to almost becoming a listeria nag on these things.”

Mr. McCain said the most passionate debate in the hearings will revolve around the amount of inspection that should be required. He argued that actual inspection is not the key to safer food. Instead, he said, a higher expectation of behaviour should be required by the players in the system. He pointed out, for example, that there was no requirement of environmental testing for listeria in Maple Leaf's Toronto plant before the crisis of last summer.

“There was a recommendation but no requirement,” he said, maintaining that Maple Leaf was performing tests and accumulating data far in excess of what was required. “We wish we had known then what we know today, and we didn't. We feel we could have saved 21 lives in the process.”

Mr. McCain said Maple Leaf's sales volumes have come back considerably but the company is experiencing “margin compression.” As it tries to rebuild its business, it has not been able to pass along commodity-cost increases to consumers. In addition, it has incurred heavier-than-normal promotion costs to offset the marketing setback of the tainted meat.

Mr. McCain is a central player in a regulatory reform process that is moving on three fronts: a more rigorous listeria testing policy launched this month by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency; a federal investigation into the crisis headed by former Alberta health executive Sheila Weatherill; and the hearings by a parliamentary subcommittee on food safety.

Mr. McCain said no matter what is achieved, there are no absolute guarantees. “We have to be candid and open and honest to the Canadian public, as does the industry and government. In the world of food safety we can do the very best job we can, but zero risk is not achievable based on what we know today.”

 

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